I began my first teaching position this semester, and one of the things I was most excited about (and made sure to take advantage of no matter what) was that I was allowed to take a class for free. By some stroke of luck—perhaps even divine intervention—there was a spot open in Joseph Grigely’s class titled Exhibition Prosthetics. This series of writings will be reflections from the week prior on talks I have gone too, virtual exhibitions I see (since I am taking this class during a pandemic I cannot in good conscience visit in person ones), as well as the readings assigned to me by Joseph, and any conversations we have together in the interim through email or instagram. We’ll see how it goes.
I’ve always found how a book begins to be incredibly instructive about the book that comes afterward. Introductions, copyright inclusions, dedications, forewords, prefaces, title pages, table of contents; even if someone chooses to skip these pages they structure the reading that one undertakes. I think often about the way the layout of a book assists someone in the reading. If the front matter comprises a fair amount of pages and it is skipped the reader may feel as if much more of the book has been finished than actually has been (it also means the book may be easier to hold, which is an entirely other ergonomic book concern that plays into the ease of reading; for example new copies of the Documents of Contemporary Art series are often bulky and hard to hold because of the stiffness of the pages). But on the other hand if one dpes choose to stick with this beginning content then the entirety of the reader’s journey is changed.
When she proposed the translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak also proposed what is essentially an essay in its own right for the translator’s introduction to that book. It not only provided an incredibly comprehensive beginning for anyone unfamiliar with Derrida’s work, but it engaged with the ways in which the book is constructed by editors, writers, and especially translators. It crafted an experience which imbued one’s reading thereafter of the book with, not so much skepticism, but criticality, of the experience of reading a translated text, as well as the process of reading in general. Spivak’s introduction is a case study of the very process of deconstruction that Derrida had put forward. In this way the translator’s introduction became a work in its own right to be read in companion to Of Grammatology while simultaneously highlighting the job of the translator.
This act of Spivak’s also mirrored that of Derrida’s first published work. An introduction to Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry which was aptly titled Edmund Husserl’s “Origin of Geometry”: An Introduction and did include Husserl’s essay in it’s entirety which was originally an appendix to his book The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. An introduction to an appendix, which when translated into English by John P. Leavey Jr. also included a preface and an afterword written by him. In this situation Derrida’s first book is an introduction twofold. An introduction to an appendix and an introduction to his own work through an engagement with the work of another. As with Spivak we see here that what comes before (and after) a text is relational, it structures the text while at the same time putting the text in conversation with others. And it creates and works within this movement between the book and the text, here Leavey’s preface is instructive, “On the present French intellectual scene [the late 80s], the advent and demise of structuralism have accompanied what has been called the book’s supersedure by the text. The French [itself a complicated way of identifying him as he was born an Algerian, and has remarked that he always felt outside of the French language, itself a conversation perhaps for another day, although the preface is titled Undecidables and Old Names] philosopher and critic Jacques Derrida is situated at the juncture of the two, the book and the text; he writes about the origins, delays, and different paths at their crossroads. His ‘method’ is the ‘deconstruction’ of the very idea of writing.”1
Dedications in the beginnings of books are varied and emotional. They tie up a book’s production with the lives of people that surrounded the author, living and dead, related, familial, friendly, and potent. In For the Love of Lacan Derrida writes of the homage given to him by Jacques Lacan at the beginning of his collection L’Ecrits which went like this, “to Jacques Derrida, this hommage to take as he will” which is quite ambivalent as far as dedications go. Derrida remarks on the ways he did take this and how—as with much of his discussion of friendship—death hovered around, between them, the death of either or. (And peculiarly this was written in 1994, a year which I will return to later in this writing.) Death seems to hover within dedications always, not just this one. Within the field of dedications I present a few examples:
Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era; For our dead ones: A., T., E., J., K., S., T. / For William / For Virginie, Pepa, and Swann
David Wojnarowicz Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration; This Book Is For: Peter Hujar / Tom Rauffenbart / Marion Scemama (to say nothing of the first page after which is personal acknowledgements with two lists of the living and the dead, a little too long to reproduce here.)
Timothy Faust’s Health Justice Now; To Kelly Jo, / who pulls me from the swamp / and breathes life into me / Also to Ronnie James Dio
Some simpler, mysterious, yet still potent:
Saidiya V. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America; To Gilbert
Fred Moten In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition; for B
Stefano Harney & Fred Moten The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study; For our mentor, / Martin L. Kilson
Leonard Cohen The Favorite Game; To my mother
Cedric J. Robinson Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition; For Leonard and Gary, / for whom there was not enough time
Others more complex and involved:
Legacy Russel Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto; For DIGITALMAN, who: / 001—Loved me and my avatar. / 002—Championed journeying along this gorgeous loop. / 003—Died before this was born[e], but who birthed me, and for that, birthed this, too. / Still processing, you live here, in these pages, with us all.
Patti Smith Just Kids; Much has been said about Robert, and more will be added. Young men will adopt his gait. Young girls will wear white dresses and mourn his curls. He will be condemned and adored. His excesses damned or romanticized. In the end, truth will be found in his work, the corporeal body of the artist. It will not fall away. Man cannot judge it. For art sings of God, and ultimately belongs to him. (I can only assume this is meant in the way of a dedication, although it doesn’t have the for or to’s usually associated, it was in italics and placed at the beginning of the text, make with it what you will.)
Thomas Wolfe Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life; TO A. B. / “Then, as all my soules bee, / Emparadis’d in you, (in whom alone / I understand, and grow and see,) / The rafters of my body, bone / Being still with you, the Muscle, Sinew, and Veine, / Which tile this house, will come again.”
In these there is almost always preoccupation with death, dedications much like epitaphs operate in memoriam. And while they are not necessarily epigraphs whose name sounds incredibly similar to the epitaph, they operate in that same vein, of imbuing the book in the relational. A life lived is one always in connection with others, and a book brought to life is no different.
In high school I was gifted copies of both East of Eden by John Steinbeck and Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger by my friend Andy. I would read and love both (East of Eden becoming one of my favorites), but in Catcher in the Rye (another book with a dedication to the author’s mother) Andy wrote something which I rediscovered recently, “Evan, / Don’t read this for school. Don’t read this for me. Read this for you. / - Andy”. Not only was that a much needed message from a dear friend who I looked up to, but it restructured my entire relationship to the book. I’ve always been someone who felt a kind of love for Catcher in the Rye, and not for a lot of the usual reasons; I just always knew it wasn’t as a bad as people said it was. I can recognize now that this is owed entirely to the emotional resonance it was given by my friend’s note at the beginning.
This emotional resonance follows even when the note comes to you from somewhere else. The note at the beginning of a book written by previous owners is one of the treasured moments of anyone who enjoys buying (or has to buy) used books. In my copy of Eve Sedgewick’s Epistemology of the Closet someone wrote in the front of the book, FOR MY LOVELY QUEER FRIEND <3 A. P in bright pink pen, and it was dated Sept 13. Now not only do I wonder who AP was and who this friend was, but also how did I come into possession of it? Another question becomes, am I now that lovely queer friend through the sheer accident of the change of possession?
Another more recent example of this shift is in the duplicated pages of Joseph Grigely’s copy of Ways of Curating (given to me for the purposes of reading for his class) by Hans Ulrich Obrist, in which there is a note written by HUO—which I will not reproduce in its entirety here as this is much less discrete of a connection to be made between the note and the person—dedicated both to Amy and Joseph. That kind of group relationship embedded within this text creates a situation which Obrist would think of as curating par excellence, even if this moment is just in the front matter of a book. And like the dedications embedded by author’s in the very first act of publishing, it creates a crowd of people who have a place within the context of the book.
How a book begins sets the tone for the journey. And to consider in greater detail all of those elements which do begin it, a much greater sense of just what it is we get into when reading a book begins to open up. It is to quote the title of Wolfe’s novel “a story of the buried life”; it is a life of experiences, connections, ideas, and beauty distilled into the moment of the book. I like to think of the book as analogous to what one experiences at an art exhibition. It hinges on the relational. It brings me back to a quote from Douglas Gordon that I acquired through Grigely’s book that included a conversation with Zak Kyes and Obrist which is where Obrist said the quote—it was quite a way between the moment of speech and the moment of my engagement with that speech that the book mediated in a second (at least a second in my time). Specifically, (and I’m paraphrasing a paraphrase) art is a pretext or excuse to have a conversation, or a conversation is the real goal of art (second half are my words). Books are great at conversations; sparking them and having one. And if you think that books don’t talk back, try returning to a book after reading it once and you’ll see that the second, third, fourth, and even twentieth time around the text will have something different to say. As someone who is famously stubborn and repetitive I appreciate the idea that repetition necessarily implies a shift in the meaning of what is said.
I guess I would say then after all of this that there isn’t much difference (especially when intent is involved) between a book and an exhibition, between the act of writing and the act of curating. As Obrist puts it in Ways of Curating, “…the task of curating is to make junctions, to allow different elements to touch.”2 One exhibition I immediately think of in particular is Seth Siegelaub’s Xerox Book which took place entirely within the book space. What was in this exhibition wasn’t simply documentation of the works (as one would find in a catalogue) but it was the works themselves, printed using a Xerox copier.
Grigely, who manages the HUO Archives, even remarks upon the importance publications play within the curatorial work of Obrist, and the effect Obrist has had on the world of curation. And I would argue that in Obrist in particular but curation in general a third mode arises. What I mean is that in this constellation of thinking that I am creating between writing and curating, and reading and viewing, a kind of tesseractial triangle appears bridging the exhibition, the book, and the performance. The conversation! A conversation as performance; as book; as exhibition; as curation. Or as Douglas Dunn once put it, talking is dancing and dancing is talking.
The importance of Obrist within this constellation I am drawing comes from the importance he puts on the conversation. And if we go back to an issue of Art-Rite published in 1976 on artist books we find that Adrian Piper has something to say here as well. Specifically, the question of what would happen if art was as cheap and accessible as comic books, and what that would do to the question of economics as well as authorial and curatorial intent within the art world. If art took up the same model that structured the production and distribution of novels the whole art world would be flipped on its head. And I mean to say “would” even though we have many examples of art being distributed through the book format because it’s still more often than not price-prohibitive to buy art catalogues or art books as opposed to other kinds of books (I can buy a used novel at Myopic Books in Chicago for 4.50, but I have to spend upwards of 30-40 dollars on the cheap end for many art books and catalogues, not to mention certain theoretical texts). Although there is a somewhere better that is coming and art book and zine fairs are showing us a way. But the important note here is that the book and the exhibition have a history of relationship and conversation. Especially within Obrist’s archives the importance of the publication as that which gives the world greater access to art becomes apparent. As Grigely puts it in his writing on the archives,
Obrist’s archive is not just about his exhibition history, but the way that history is represented by his publications. The publication interventions he curated are especially important in this regard. In 1993 he organized a project with Alighiero Boetti for Austrian Airlines, where Boetti’s stylized paintings of planes crossing a rich blue sky were published as an intervention in the airline’s in-flight magazine, and the paintings were also made into a series of jigsaw puzzles that were distributed to children on flights. Interventions like this have become one of Obrist’s stylized trademarks: they work differently than conventional exhibitions because in these cases people do not go to the shows; the shows go to them. It is the exhibition modality that moves into the “non-places” of everyday life, thereby transforming those spaces.3
Which for the moment brings me back to 1994. I was born in March of that year, Aligheiro Boetti died in April, and Obrist’s show Do It occurred in September. This means I am only slightly older than the exhibition (which in many ways has not properly ended), and Obrist was my age when he curated it. Do It consisted of written instruction or scores from artists for participants to perform as part of the exhibition. It is the prime example in many ways of what I am discussing, the intersection of performance, the book (these scores were published in a book, expanding the reach of the exhibition even further), and curation/exhibition. And I bring in my own biographical information and these serendipities that I find in here because those serendipities constitute a conversation, between moments and events in time. My brain (which is also me and my body) enjoys these kinds of serendipitous conversations between unknowing participants, and those serendipities are what stories are made of. Those that we tell ourselves and others.
Derrida, Jacques, and Edmund Husserl. Edmund Husserl's An Origin of Geometry: An Introduction. Translated by John P. Leavey, Jr. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. p 1
Obrist, Hans-Ulrich, and Asad Raza. Ways of Curating. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. p 1
Grigely, Joseph. "The Obrist Factor." In An Exhibition Always Hides Another Exhibition: Texts on Hans Ulrich Obrist, edited by April Lamm, 55-72. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019. p 63